Ladies and gentlemen, Macbeth is a mess. Some of the greatest dramatic poetry ever written in English coexists with the Grandest Guignol gore; astonishing insights into the human appetite for power are all but stifled by astrological mumbo-jumbo. Shakespeare was addressing two audiences, of course: the nobles and the groundlings, with their different tastes. But in partly pleasing both, has Macbeth ever pleased anyone entirely?
Well, it pleases directors, for they find in it the opportunity, or excuse, to work their gaudiest reparative magic. The tale of the ambitious but hesitant thane, roused to regicide by his uncompunctious wife, is ripe for resetting, and the hallucinatory assemblage of different worlds — battlefield, court, coven — begs to be unified within a conceptual vision. Recently in New York we have seen Patrick Stewart as Stalin in a morgue and Alan Cumming as the entire cast in a nuthouse. Also Liev Schreiber, John Douglas Thompson, the Cheek by Jowl company, and even Punchdrunk’s site-specific homage, Sleep No More. Coming to the Park Avenue Armory in June is Kenneth Branagh’s immersive mudfest — mind where you sit! Meanwhile, that sanest of directors, Jack O’Brien, has taken his stab with Ethan Hawke and apparently gone crazy.
Beautifully, of course. Few Macbeths have looked as good. As he demonstrated in his Lincoln Center Theater stagings of Henry IV and The Coast of Utopia, O’Brien uses the immense depth and height of the Vivian Beaumont to better effect than anyone. Here, the effect is of geological grandeur; within Scott Pask’s monumental scenic design, O’Brien composes so artfully that even his perspectives have perspectives. But then all the designers are in top form. Japhy Weideman’s lighting seems to cut through the space like scissors through fabric. Perhaps Weideman borrowed the scissors from Catherine Zuber, whose medieval but somehow Edwardian costumes — leather breeches and astrakhan-trimmed greatcoats — are as severe and sculptural as the setting. (Lady Macbeth gets a stunning gown with its front mostly sheared off.) There is nothing that doesn’t delight and inform the eye, and sometimes, as with Jeff Sugg’s projections, haunt it. Even the murders are magical.
But magic is the source of confusions as well. It’s clear that O’Brien wants to connect Macbeth’s metaphysics to its psychology, and also to its historical association with spells and curses. (Even today, superstitious theater folk hoping to avoid mishaps refer to Macbeth as The Scottish Play or The Glamis Comedy or Mackers.) A program note explains that the medieval mandala inscribed in the stage floor, and featured in the production’s advertising, is meant to create a “magical space for acting” as well as “a ‘safe talisman’ for anyone still slightly suspicious of the reputation of this haunting, and haunted, play.” But how these pentagrams, heptagons, scribbles, and runes connect to the action, except in the most generic terms, is left unexplained, even as the idea of otherworldliness is belabored in performance. The witches, for instance, are men in drag. Furthermore, they occasionally kidnap one of the “regular” actors and take his role. Byron Jennings flips his hood and becomes the bloody sergeant who gets the action going. And in the “Porter” scene — famous for its supposedly comic relief — John Glover, still wearing his beanbag breasts, heckles the audience with knock-knock jokes as if this were the pre-show at Late Night with Daffyd Leatherman.
I’m afraid all this woo-woo gets silly fast. It’s one thing to promote the textually questionable character of Hecate, goddess of witchcraft, to a major player as O’Brien does; it’s another to accouter her with a pack of hell-kitties who sniff at the remains of Banquo’s feast and all but sing “Memory.” (They bear an unfortunate resemblance to Grizabella the Glamour Cat.) Perhaps O’Brien means to suggest that supernatural phenomena play a more muscular role in human affairs than moderns like to think. Is what we call psychopathology just impish possession? If that’s his point, he’s over-literalizing something Shakespeare took pains to dramatize in emotional terms, which leads to an unhelpful kind of alienation. It’s like listening to someone obsessed with horoscopes explain a break-up. By the time the witches make their famous potion, you are not surprised to find them abjuring the usual “eye of newt, and toe of frog, / wool of bat, and tongue of dog,” in favor of the recipe document itself, torn into confetti. They boil the actual words.
So does the production. Whether because of its overweening metaphysical superstructure or just the casting, much of the text is garbled. Obviously this would be most grievous in the case of Macbeth himself. Hawke looks great and doesn’t (as everyone feared he would) scream; he clearly understands the job. I found myself wanting to thank him for coming, as if the theater were one’s smart but homely sister and he the dashing young man who had inexplicably agreed to take her on a date. But this is not The Glamis Menagerie, and Hawke is not a stranger here. (He appeared in O’Brien’s Henry and Utopia.) His technique is simply not stage technique. He makes the film actor’s mistake of thinking between the lines instead of during them, which results in a Macbeth whose mind seems not so much, in Shakespeare’s astonishing phrase, “full of scorpions” as full of snakes: slow and constricting. And the verse, thus emptied of thought, has a singsong, mincing quality reminiscent of Dr. Evil.
It’s not just Hawke. Except for a few performances — reliable Richard Easton’s old King Duncan, Daniel Sunjata’s exceptionally manly Macduff—the wonderful multiplying effect that occurs when actors fuse poetry with action is mostly absent here. (Anne-Marie Duff makes a very sexy Lady Macbeth, but her role somehow seems to recede in the midst of all the spells.) Still, there are images I won’t soon forget: a trick bouquet of wilting flowers, Banquo’s ghost in a glittering necklace of knives. Unfortunately, Macbeth is more than just what meets the eye; even the witches knew to feature tongue in their recipe.
* * *
A cheaply constructed, boxlike apartment with one great feature — a beautiful view from the balcony — is the setting for Amanda Peet’s first play, The Commons of Pensacola. It’s also a pretty good description of the play itself. The storytelling is as clunky and baldly functional as the set’s Home Depot fan and bifold closet doors, but the outlook — what Peet has in sight — is actually quite smart and worthy of attention.
The subject is complicity. The model is Ruth Madoff. In Peet’s version, she’s called Judith, but she’s similarly the 70ish wife of a jailed financier whose fraudulent schemes left hundreds of clients, including charities and Holocaust survivors, destitute. As a result of prosecutions and settlements, Judith is reduced from a life of mansions and yachts to a relatively pauperish exile in Florida, in the title condo development. (The real Ruth Madoff never sank much below Boca Raton.) She has two daughters (the Madoffs had two sons, one a suicide): the stable, married Ali and the unsettled, out-of-work actress Becca, both of whom are disappointments. Judith is also ill in an unspecified way that is meant to keep her sympathetic as long as possible. How long is that? Until the second commercial.
Well, no, it’s not a TV show, but it plays like one. Peet mechanically introduces the various conflicts with the openings and closings of the apartment door. First, 43-year-old Becca arrives for Thanksgiving with her hot young vegan alcoholic journalist boyfriend in tow. (That can’t go wrong, can it?) Gabe wants to make a documentary about Judith — to help her “take over the narrative on this thing” — and Becca is his passport. Next arrives Ali’s daughter Lizzy, a trash-talking 16-year-old (“suck my big hairy boner, Motherfucker”) with a wobbly sense of sexual propriety. Finally Ali herself materializes to scold her daughter, undermine her sister, disdain her mother, and provide the audience with a crucial piece of information about what’s hiding in the fridge. The only one without an agenda is the Jamaican attendant, Lorena.
That they all talk fast and snappy (Peet was a star of Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip) cannot disguise the loud hum of the play’s gears at work. “Guess who’s coming to dinner tomorrow for Thanksgiving?” pipes Judith at one point, solely for the audience’s benefit. (People in real life generally know if Thanksgiving is the next day.) Or this astonishing exchange:
GABE: I guess you could say I’m a guerilla journalist.
JUDITH: Like Jane Goodall?
In similar ways, characters are constantly being shaped by the transient needs of the plot or dialogue, rather than vice versa. By the time someone utters the terrible cliché “You don’t hate me half as much as I hate myself,” you begin to suspect it’s the play talking.
But give Peet credit, in her freshman effort, for attempting to wrestle with issues whose defining characteristic is that they won’t lie flat. And though she eventually seems to give up, bringing matters to an arbitrary end with a tacked-on scene, she obviously cares about the right things. Buried somewhere in the play’s boiler room (or perhaps in the fridge) are conflicts worth considering: How much should the unwitting accomplices to crime be asked to pay? And how unwitting can a wife be? Judith convincingly argues that she (unlike Ruth Madoff, who was for a time her husband’s bookkeeper) was not even capable of knowing about the fraud; nevertheless, she profited mightily from her ignorance. In light of that, is the government’s policy of impoverishing her a form of justice for the victims? Or just eye-for-an-eye revenge? Or both?
Alas, Peet doesn’t yet have the skill to do more than sketch these questions; it’s an overripe but relevant symbol that the sliding glass door to Judith’s balcony, and thus to the beautiful view beyond it, is stuck shut. (We hear about this maybe six times.) Instead, we’re locked inside a domestic drama that feebly grasps at the larger issues instead of embodying them. When we learn, for instance, that Becca, unable to book any gigs, is reduced to living in her car and babysitting for her agent, we have no way of knowing whether this is associated (as she suggests) with the notoriety of her father’s crimes. She may simply be a bad actress.
Luckily, Sarah Jessica Parker isn’t. As Becca, she gives a strongly committed there-but-for-the-grace-of-God performance. She doesn’t mind letting herself look a bit haggard, though frankly the audience is relieved when she appears in a fabulous slinky dress for that cop-out final scene. Blythe Danner, as Judith, in her tasteful pale ensembles, is less convincing, or perhaps just less comfortable; with her patrician style, she seems to recoil from the earthy (read: Jewish) directness of the character. She comes off cute. Meanwhile, in a bit of luxury casting, the superb and multifaceted monologist Nilaja Sun (No Child) gets a few lines as the Jamaican attendant. No insult to Parker and Danner, but The Commons of Pensacola would be much less common if Sun played everyone. Her take on these characters, let alone on Ruth Madoff, would not, it seems safe to say, be cute.
Macbeth is at the Vivian Beaumont Theater through January 12.
The Commons of Pensacola is at New York City Center Stage I through January 26.